Authorship order dispute
Case text (Anonymised)
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A manuscript has been accepted for publication in our journal and we would like to publish in the March 2011 issue. The corresponding author (Dr F) is trying to collect copyright forms from all of the authors of the paper to send back to us, but one author will not sign the copyright form due to a disagreement about authorship order.
The author (Dr D) who is refusing to sign the copyright undertook a substantial early literature review for the manuscript but this was taken over by another colleague (Dr E) when Dr D had to leave due to a long term illness. Dr C was the initiator of the subject matter for the study and oversaw the early directions of Dr D’s efforts. The manuscript was ultimately put together by Drs C and E, with the oversight of Dr F as the head of department.
Dr D is adamant that she should be first or second author on the paper (rather than third as she currently is), and said that she intends to block publication if this is not done, even though she has said that she will not work in academia again and is not interested in academic rewards. As head of department, Dr F is not willing to change the order of the authors as he believes the current order accurately reflects the scientific input of the authors. He has discussed with his research institute chair and with his region’s ethics board.
In the meantime, Dr D has not been communicative, despite Dr F’s correspondence requesting cooperation. Dr F has been instructed not to speak to Dr D in person and has to communicate through e-mail or a third party legal representative. So far, our publications office has not communicated with Dr D—we have only been getting updates through Dr F as the corresponding author.
We do not want to proceed with publication until these issues are resolved, at the risk of facing legal action or having to retract the paper. In any case, we would only move forward once we received all copyright forms from the authors.
What should we do?
The Forum raised the question that since Dr F has a conflict of interest (as an author), should he be acting as a mediator? All agreed that the paper cannot be published until this authorship issue is resolved. The advice was to contact the other authors and ask for their opinions. The Forum advised that to avoid a similar situation in the future, after submission, all authors should be copied on all correspondence so that they are aware that the paper has been submitted and informed of the decisions regarding the paper.
The Forum agreed that the editor has done the right thing by taking this back to the institution, even though the head of department has a conflict of interest. The Forum suggested contacting the Dean of the university and asking him to conduct an investigation.
Also, does the editor know if Dr D has seen the final paper? Perhaps the editor should write to Dr D directly and see if he can obtain any more information.
All agreed that it is up to the authors to resolve this issue, not the editor. This is an authorship dispute. If the dispute is not resolved, the paper should not be published.
The editor contacted all of the authors and said that unless a mutual decision could be made, the manuscript would have to be rejected.
The editorial office received a number of very emotional (and not really appropriate) e-mails from Dr D, providing details of grievances about her previous department which had arisen following her period of sickness, which went well beyond the scope of the paper submitted, and what the editorial office would expect or want to deal with.
The editor spoke with Dr F, who had said that an independent mediation meeting had been set. The journal subsequently got in touch with Dr F to find that the mediation meeting would not be happening as Dr D had instigated legal discussions (which were about more than just the paper).
Following discussions with our chief editor, the decision was made to rescind the decision of acceptance, which was communicated to all of the authors.
Dr F has enquired about the possibility of submitting a new manuscript with his coauthors. The Chief Editor has stated that this will only be considered if it can be shown that the contribution made by Dr D has been omitted and that the manuscript can be seen to be substantially different.